Questions are always welcome; however, here are several of the most frequently asked:
What are common Jewish wedding traditions?
The Jewish wedding ceremony contains many traditional elements. Some have become nearly universal, like the exchanging of rings. Others are traditions retained from very different times and places, and it’s necessary for such traditions (if chosen by the couple) to be reconstructed so that they are meaning-rich for all who attend the ceremony, whether or not they are Jewish. For this reason, I immediately translate into English whatever I say or chant in Hebrew, but I use poetic rather than literal translations so that ancient words resonate with 21st century brides, grooms, their families and friends.
Ancient rituals such as a chuppah and the sheva brachot (seven wedding blessings), in and of themselves, are meaning-laden, but they are general rather than specific, which is why I find ways to include elements I specially create for the couple standing under the wedding canopy. I think of the ceremony as being like a sukkah, or hut, which starts as a simple, unadorned framework, but then various decorations are added until the sukkah looks and feels “just right.”
What is a ketubah?
A ketubah is what might be called an ancient pre-nuptial agreement. The “ketubah,” which means “document” or “written thing,” was traditionally a legal document which allowed young men to pay the “bride-price” for their prospective wives basically with “no money down” so that they could marry before they had become financially established. It also required the groom to provide for his wife’s well-being and stipulated that the sum of 200 zuzim would be paid to the wife should the couple divorce. (We consider that sum to be an amount equivalent to support oneself financially for a year.) So while the traditional ketubah now seems anachronistic and even “quaint,” it was actually a rather forward-thinking document for its time.
Progressive Jews have reframed the meaning of the ketubah by making it a spiritual document of commitment, a sort of mission statement for the marriage. The body of the ketubah is read during the ceremony, and many couples choose beautiful artwork that reflects their aesthetic. It is often displayed during the celebration and is then displayed prominently in the newly married couple’s home.
What is the chuppah?
Jewish wedding ceremonies take place under a chuppah (wedding canopy), which represents the home that the couple will build together. The open walls of this space indicate that their home will always be open to family and friends and the community. Many couples choose to have family members stand at the four corners of the chuppah, signifying the strong foundation they provide for the couple.
The chuppah is traditionally covered with a tallit (prayer shawl), but many couples today choose to express themselves in the chuppah they design. The covering may be made from memorabilia from the couple’s early lives, such as summer camp T-shirts. If one partner comes from a country and culture other than America, the couple may choose to bring this culture to the ceremony in the chuppah, for example by using a sari or kimono for the covering. It’s a wonderful opportunity for couples to be creative. When a couple stands together under the chuppah, they are standing in holy space and will forever cherish this sacred time when their lives were joined.
Note: The hand-crafted chuppah in the above photo, made from vintage wedding dresses, is available for couples to use for their ceremony.
Can I get married on Shabbat?
Jewish weddings are not traditionally held on Shabbat (from Friday at sundown to Saturday at sundown). This tradition came about because Shabbat is a day for rest from all work. It is a day of spiritual renewal and reflection. Of course, a wedding held on Shabbat requires legions of people to work, including the rabbi! In addition, one doesn’t sign contracts on Shabbat, so it would be problematic for couples to sign the marriage contract (ketubah) shortly before the wedding ceremony, as is customary. Also, Jews are asked not to mix their celebrations together, as this serves to diminish one of the celebrations over the other. Shabbat is actually the most important Jewish holiday, and it tends to “trump” all other celebrations.
But Saturday evenings in our Northwest summers are very popular times for weddings. The weather is usually perfect, and many couples choose lovely outdoor venues with views that provide dramatic ceremony backdrops. Couples like to create an entire wedding weekend for their guests, many of whom travel from quite a distance to be in attendance. But it just doesn’t get dark here at a reasonable time!
So that we keep the spirit of Shabbat but still take advantage of our wonderful Northwest summer evenings, I perform weddings after 6 pm on Shabbat. Some couples choose to start their wedding ceremony with Havdallah, a small service which involves all the senses and which symbolically ushers out Shabbat. In this way, we nod both towards the tradition and also towards the practicality of living in the Northwest.
What is Reconstructionism?
I am a Reconstructionist rabbi. A fundamental principle of Reconstructionism is that Judaism is the “evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people.” When Reconstructionists speak of Judaism, we are talking about more than just religious practice, for a definition of Judaism as civilization also includes art and music, food and language, culture and history and, very importantly, values. Reconstructionist Judaism honors the nearly two thousand years of Jewish tradition and ritual practice, but it is also dynamic and seeks to reconstruct ancient traditions by imbuing them with meaning for the contemporary world. Reconstructionist Judaism is a spiritual and ethical path which emphasizes inclusiveness, pluralism and which invites the sacred into our daily lives.